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Buddhism and the Rise of the Written Vernacular in East Asia: The Making of National Languages

  • Victor H. Mair


The vast majority of premodern chinese literature, certainly all of the most famous works of the classical tradition, were composed in one form or another of Literary Sinitic (hereafter LS, wen-yen[-wen], also often somewhat ambiguously called “Classical Chinese” or “Literary Chinese”). Beginning in the medieval period, however, an undercurrent of written Vernacular Sinitic (hereafter VS, pai-hua[-wen]) started to develop. The written vernacular came to full maturity in China only with the May Fourth Movement of 1919, after the final collapse during the 1911 revolution of the dynastic, bureaucratic institutions that had governed China for more than two millennia. It must be pointed out that the difference between wen-yen and pai-hua is at least as great as that between Latin and Italian or between Sanskrit and Hindi. In my estimation, a thorough linguistical analysis would show that unadulterated wen-yen and pure pai-hua are actually far more dissimilar than are Latin and Italian or Sanskrit and Hindi. In fact, I believe that wen-yen and pai-hua belong to wholly different categories of language, the former being a sort of demicryptography largely divorced from speech and the latter sharing a close correspondence with spoken forms of living Sinitic.



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